Natalism Is Not Enough

Published January 25, 2024

National Review

The world’s richest man is also the world’s leading proponent of natalism.

“Having children is saving the world,” Elon Musk posted on X, the site he now owns. He’s posted a periodic stream of warnings about sub-replacement-rate fertility levels and declining birth rates around the globe. The Tesla mogul can’t be accused of not taking his advice to heart, having fathered at least eleven children with three women. “Doing my best to help the underpopulation crisis,” he noted drolly. “A collapsing birth rate is the biggest danger civilization faces by far.”

Musk isn’t alone in his crusade. Natalism, as a movement, boasts an eclectic range of backers in Silicon Valley and at D.C. think tanks, and an especially high-profile champion in Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

We’ve suffered through enough years of “population bomb” propaganda. Decades of Malthusian warnings about population growth and declining resources have failed to play out, and technological progress belies the common suggestion that a sustainable world requires fewer people. A growing focus on the perils of a depopulating world, or on what it says that Western society seems increasingly unwilling to reproduce itself, is welcome.

The natalists hear alarm bells that haven’t yet sounded audibly for the mainstream. In polls, concerns over falling birth rates don’t rank very highly for voters, despite the additional stress that lower rates will put on our military readiness, economic growth, and social safety nets. The Pew Research Center even finds that one-quarter of Americans say declining fertility rates will have a positive impact on America’s future — a nonsensical, antihuman stance.

But the natalist movement, while directionally correct, offers a distorted vision of a healthy society. In their single-minded focus on raising birth rates, its leading proponents misunderstand the nature of the problem and offer solutions that may be counterproductive to their aims.

Anyone concerned about low fertility needs to be concerned, first and foremost, about the decline of marriage — not just because it is the social institution most likely to lead to the creation of new children, but because it is the one that provides those children the best shot at success. Technological advancements sold as solutions to our declining birth rate, such as broader access to assisted-reproduction techniques, may amplify rather than resolve cultural shifts away from family. To be successful, natalism must focus on making it easier to marry, bear, and raise children and balance professional and financial stability with life at home.

Some critics have opposed natalist policies on practical grounds, arguing that even if low birth rates are a concern, there’s little evidence that governments can do anything about it. That objection has merit but is often overstated. There’s evidence to suggest that direct cash transfers to parents and child-care subsidies can nudge birth rates upward, albeit at a high cost to taxpayers. Hungary, the poster child for aggressive natalist policies, has managed to arrest the nation’s plunge in fertility but has yet to approach the level necessary to prevent its population from decreasing.

What the debate over tax incentives largely overlooks is that nations can’t buy their way out of a cultural shift. As economists Melissa Kearney, Phillip Levine, and Luke Pardue wrote in a 2022 paper, “the key explanation for the post-2007 sustained decline in U.S. birth rates is not about some changing policy or cost factor, but rather shifting priorities across cohorts of young adults.” Having a child is costly, but money alone doesn’t explain why fewer young adults are having children.

We can see this priority shift in the national data. In the wake of the Great Recession in 2008, birth rates fell, just as economic theory would predict — when incomes go down, would-be parents are less likely to procreate. But, breaking with the prior pattern, fertility did not rebound as the economy recovered. In 2013, Jonathan V. Last wrote What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, an underappreciated masterwork in identifying the trends that matter and projecting them. The following year, Jessica Grose, then with Slate, called 2014 “the year having kids became a frivolous luxury.” Even before the Covid-19 pandemic reached our shores, with a thriving economy delivering sizeable wage growth to workers in the bottom half of the income distribution, fertility rates continued to fall.

The birth dearth is, in some sense, a monkey’s-paw victory for conservatives who have lamented the rise in single parenthood. Among unmarried women age 1544, the birth rate fell from 51.8 per 1,000 in 2007 to 37.8 last year. But that is not being matched by more women getting married or more births within marriage.

All this coincides with a drop in the number of marriages and the coinciding falloff of religious practice — the “shifting priorities” that Kearney, Levine, and Pardue write about. As the Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin noted a decade ago, marriage has increasingly become a “capstone” on successful young adulthood rather than a course on which young adults embark together. That cultural shift builds on long-running legal and economic changes that have made marriage a greater financial risk for working-class individuals who can’t be certain their spouse won’t walk out on them. Some 42 percent of women age 15–44 were married in the year 2007; in just 15 years, that share dropped to 37 percent. In other words, if marriage rates had stayed at their 2007 levels, wedding bells would have rung an additional 3.1 million times over the past decade and a half.

That cultural shift is seen in people’s expectations. Fewer young people now anticipate getting married and having children. According to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, the share of teen boys who said that having a good marriage and family life was “important” or “extremely important” hovered around 75 percent up until about a decade ago. Since then, it’s declined sharply, reaching 57 percent in 2021. Teen girls show a similar trend, falling from a higher level. Among adults, about one in four tell the Pew Research Center that having children is “extremely” or “very” important to a fulfilling life.

Part of this is driven by a decline in religious observance. In 2004, 40 percent of young adults (age 22–39) told the General Social Survey that they attended church “less than once a year.” In 2021, the number was almost two-thirds. Religious adults are much more likely to marry than unaffiliated ones.

Even secular natalists should be concerned about the empty pews, because marriage remains a very strong predictor of fertility. Among married women, fertility rates have remained largely stable over the past two or three decades — the number of births per 1,000 married women (age 15–44) was 83.6 in 2021, lower than in recent years but not historically low. If Americans were getting married at the rates of prior generations, it would make the decline in the overall birth rate less steep.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation helps us see what kind of impact that would have had. Imagine if everything else had stayed the same — the number of women in their reproductive prime, the fertility rates of married and unmarried women, the economic picture — but instead of continuing their downward slide, marriage rates had stayed at the 2007 level. In this admittedly simplified scenario, the stork would have brought 1.6 million more babies to our shores over the past decade and a half. This is because freezing the decline in the marriage rate among young adults at the 2007 level would have led to 3.2 million more babies born to married parents and nearly 1.6 million fewer born to single parents. Additionally, two-thirds of these hypothetical children would have been born to two-parent households (up from about six in ten in the real world).

Again, this is a simplified counterfactual, but it illustrates a simple truth: If you’re concerned about declining fertility, you must be concerned about declining marriage. Reshaping the cultural narrative about marriage, and making it financially easier and more culturally acceptable to marry earlier, will give the most couples a better chance to have more children. A natalism that underemphasizes marriage will fall short.

Marriage matters not just for the creation of new babes but also for how these children are raised. A natalism that avoids making the normative claim that the best place for children to grow up is in a household with their two parents risks an acceleration of trends that are driving birth rates down. For men, especially, growing up without a positive male role model in the house is more likely to result in criminality, loneliness, and drug abuse — hardly conducive to forming meaningful relationships with would-be partners. A narrowcast natalism has nothing to say about the necessary role of men.

If good men are hard to find, perhaps technology can step in. Many progressives, such as those who formed the congressional “Family Building Caucus,” push for expanded subsidization of assisted reproduction for single adults. The goal of many activists is to “deconstruct the family” and decouple procreation from marriage once and for all. As reported in the New Yorker in 2019, some scholars are pushing to legally define “social infertility,” the idea that single adults or same-sex couples are unable to reproduce because of social factors. As with much progressive doublespeak, this isn’t, strictly speaking, infertility at all — it’s biology. Individuals and same-sex couples cannot produce a new life. “Social infertility” implies that parenthood is an individual right to be guaranteed by the state rather than a natural occurrence.

The progressive Left’s embrace of assisted reproduction has been met by some on the natalist Right. (Not all prominent natalist-inclined figures fall victim to this trap — Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, for instance, has explicitly sought to increase Italy’s birth rate while upholding her country’s traditional ban on most technologically assisted reproduction.) Many who pursue higher birth rates have embraced gestational surrogacy and dream of advances such as artificial wombs. Silicon Valley money has gone into new start-ups that purport to offer would-be parents pursuing in vitro fertilization the ability to select embryos for probable intelligence and other desirable traits via polygenic screening.

The result of a full-throated embrace of unregulated assisted-reproduction technology would confirm the transformation of the creation of human existence into a consumer good for sale like anything else in the marketplace. Egg-freezing and other technologies are not only expensive but can also give some women a false sense of security despite uncertain odds of success, as Yale anthropologist Marcia C. Inhorn explores in her recent book Motherhood on Ice: The Mating Gap and Why Women Freeze Their Eggs. Relying on technology to solve the problems of delayed marriage or unmarriageable men won’t solve the underlying problems pushing fertility downwards — and could make it worse, by leaving unaltered the fundamental trajectory of a career model that prizes delayed fertility.

It could also reduce political support for actually pro-family policies such as paid leave or a larger child tax credit. If having a child were purely a matter of individual consumption rather than a natural outgrowth of a couple’s commitment, why should the state feel obligated to take on any of an individual’s freely chosen responsibilities? Shouldn’t prospective parents wait until they are ready to educate and clothe their young? Why shouldn’t our tax code treat parenthood like any other consumer behavior, such as buying a yacht?

This has ramifications for policy-makers. Requiring that insurers provide individuals access to assisted reproduction, as some states already do, encourages the idea that parenthood should be a matter of pure individual consumer choice. States could improve their policies by restricting fertility-coverage mandates to married couples. A far better agenda would include research money to study the underlying causes of infertility and incentivizing companies to be more accommodating of young parents through flexible work policies, on-site child care, and paid parental leave. And it would include a focus on making family life more affordable — freeing up the housing market, allowing meaningful competition in health care, and passing tax and fiscal policy that recognizes the cost that parents bear in raising the next generation. Laws that effectively require helicopter parenting, like those that lead to parents being arrested for letting their children walk home from school, should be repealed. Rejiggering the tax code to smooth or eliminate marriage penalties, which effectively subsidize cohabitation, should be a priority. Natalists are not mistaken to emphasize these things.

Nor are they wrong to emphasize the power of culture. Pundits, religious leaders, colleges, and even electric-car moguls should talk about making it easier to have kids and making it possible for couples to marry at younger ages. These efforts must focus on making the decision to have children feel less like an individual burden and more a communitarian agreement to support families.

A world in which more families are having children is one in which more parents need time away from the demands of the market economy — necessitating a form of social conservatism that sees the value of parenthood to be in tension with, and sometimes outweighing, the pursuit of economic growth. A world where it is common for moms to step back from the labor force after they give birth, and flex back in as their children age, would be more pro-natal and more socially conservative. Progressives committed to unencumbered autonomy, as well as the green-eyeshade types who see rising GDP and higher wages as the cure to all social ills, will have to make their peace with it.

A successful natalism will necessitate a form of social conservatism that recognizes that the institution of the family has claims on society for which the state can lay the preconditions. The best prescription for our nation’s declining birth rate remains one that the government cannot easily write — go to church, walk down the aisle, and get to work addressing the underpopulation crisis.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

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